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  • Writer's pictureKimberly Weichel

Building Bridges With Russia: A Citizen Diplomat's Perspective

I recently returned from a remarkable two week fact finding citizen diplomacy trip to Russia with a delegation of 30 professionals from around the US, organized by the Center for Citizen Initiatives, an NGO based in San Francisco. We were all concerned about growing tensions between our countries and the real potential for conflict. Our purpose was to gather information by speaking with a wide range of Russians in different parts of the country, including Crimea, assess the US stereotypes of Russia, and explore ways to enhance US-Russian relations. We discovered that Russians want a close relationship with the US, many support Putin as a strong leader who has helped Russia grow economically, and that Russia is a growing country.

One of the highlights of the trip was a 2 hour meeting with former President Mikhail Gorbachev. Mr. Gorbachev talked about stories and highlights from his tenure. He said “What happens in the world hinges on what happens between our two countries. A nuclear war could not be won and should never be fought.” He shared that people-to-people contacts helped to rebuild trust after the Cold War, and that real change is driven by the people.

He also responded to our questions. I asked what he would suggest to improve relations between our countries, and he called for an immediate US-Russia Summit to ban nuclear weapons. His wisdom, vision and courage reminded me why Mr. Gorbachev was popular in the west.

I was fortunate to travel with 4 others to Crimea. Unfortunately many Americans don’t understand the history. Crimea has been part of Russia since 1783, and the Crimeans consider themselves Russian and speak Russian. In 1954 Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine as a gift of friendship (he was Ukrainian) without any input from Crimeans. It didn’t particularly matter as long as the Soviet Union was intact, but when the union dissolved in 1990, Crimea petitioned Russia to rejoin Russia. Yeltsin rejected their request, and each time Crimea petitioned Russia, they were rejected.

Ukraine didn’t want to let Crimea go, with its military base in Sevastopol and oil reserves off the coast. Yet Ukraine provided little support in terms of infrastructure development or services. When the Ukrainian coup occurred in February, 2014 following the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, there were massive protests wanting to return to Russia. They were repelled by the violence and fascist elements involved in the Kiev coup, and bus convoys from Crimea were attacked. When the new coup government said Russian was no longer an official language, Crimeans quickly organized and held a Referendum in March 2014. Over 90% of all Crimeans voted to return to Russia. This was a locally led effort of self-determination.

Russia had always maintained a long-term lease of the Sevastopol Port from Ukraine and by treaty was allowed to have up to 25,000 Russian men stationed there to service the port. At the time of rejoining with Russia, the treaty still had many years to go and at that time had 19, 000 Russians working there. These were the men who turned up in green uniforms on the streets of Crimea after 2014.

Everyone we spoke with in all 3 Crimean cities – Sevastopol, Simferopol and Yalta – were happy to be back with Russia. Russia, they said, provided security, safety and stability, and promised to improve infrastructure, increase tourism as well as private investment. We toured one such development – a large scale international children’s center on the Black Sea where children from throughout Russia come for a 3 week camp – and heard about other projects.

Crimeans kept asking us why Americans think it was an illegal annexation, and took pains to review the history with us. They asked - Why did the US support self-determination in Kosovo but reject the overwhelming vote and choice of the Crimean people? They were frustrated with the sanctions imposed on them by the US which has restricted tourism, educational and cultural exchanges, funding for NGO’s as well as foreign business and investment.

This was one of many stereotypes and rumors that we questioned while there. Another stereotype in the US is that Russia is a failing state. This is not true. Russia’s economy continues to expand and you can buy almost anything there now. Russia has become a capitalist country with a strong state sector. I was surprised to see how much it had developed since I was last there 20 years ago. I was also pleasantly surprised at how open people were in speaking with us, including our tour guide in Moscow who shared things that could never have been said publicly years ago.

Another stereotype is that Putin is a dictator - some Russians laughed when we shared this stereotype. While we heard some criticisms of Putin’s leadership, including corruption, human rights abuses, and jailing of journalists, we found he is generally admired, though not universally liked. Since he became leader, the economy has stabilized and the standard of living dramatically improved. Putin is also credited with restoring international respect for Russia and national pride for Russian citizens. Russians are proud people and deeply hurt with what they read in western media about them.

Another misconception is that Russia wants war. Nothing could be further from the truth. We heard over and over about Russians’ extraordinary loses during WWII, in which over 27 million people died, impacting all families. Every Russian we spoke with talked about how they never want a war again, and that they would never, ever, start another war. Touring the sobering Piskariovskoye Cemetery in St Petersburg, in which over a million people were buried in mass graves, is a poignant reminder of the scale of the tragedy the city lived through during WWII. The fact is Russians want to de-escalate tensions and improve relations.

We had other highlights from the trip, including a variety of meetings with leaders in Moscow. One was with Vladimir Kozin, longtime member of Russia’s Foreign Service, an advisor to the government, author, and advocate for arms reduction. He emphasized the need for an agreement between the U.S. and Russia on NO first use of nuclear weapons, an agreement that he thinks is doable and that other nations would subsequently join. He reiterated Gorbachev’s call for a US-Russia Summit focusing on arms control.

Kozin expressed particular concern that NATO is encircling Russia, something that goes against an agreement made during the Malta Summit between Presidents Bush and Gorbachev in 1989, stating that NATO would not expand. While Western media portrays Russia as “aggressive”, most Russians perceive the reverse – they see the U.S. and NATO increasing military budgets, steadily expanding to the Russian border, withdrawing from or violating past treaties and conducting provocative military exercises.

Kozin explained that many Russians are skeptical of accusations about Russian “meddling” in the U.S. election, and said “It’s a fairy tale that Russia influenced the U.S. election.” He cited clear evidence of U.S. interference in past Russian elections, especially in the 1990’s when the economy was privatized and crime, unemployment and chaos overwhelmed the country. The U.S. role in “managing” the election of Boris Yeltsin in 1995 is widely known in Russia, as is the U.S. funding of hundreds of NGO’s in Ukraine prior to the 2013-2014 violence and coup.

Another meeting was with Dmitri Babich, a journalist in Russia since 1989, who said there is a range of media supporting both government and opposition parties. According to Babich, myths about Russian media, such as that one cannot criticize the president in Russia, can be dispelled simply by visiting Russian news websites and using Google Translator. Vladimir Posner, a long time Russian journalist with his own TV program, explained that the three major TV stations support the government, but that many journalists in alternative media criticize Putin. He expressed frustration that the U.S. media has demonized Russia since 1918 and has done so far more than Russian media has ever done about the United States. In Posner’s estimation, Putin is demonized in U.S. media in ways that even Stalin never was, which he feels is due to a lack of accurate information.

Another meeting was with Andrei Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, who believes that the US and Russia share a number of common values and interests: we both use capitalist markets; we want order, not chaos, in the Mid-East; we are both anti-ISI; we want a North Korea without nuclear arms or ballistic missiles; we supported the Colombian peace agreement with FARC; we imposed sanctions on Iran and North Korea, and neither wants war.

Everyone we met was warm and welcoming and wanted us to tell Americans that they want cooperation with America. This was my 8th trip to Russia, and I was yet again reminded that our similarities are far greater than our differences. I came away from Russia feeling hopeful for the country, but saddened about the many misconceptions and inaccuracies in America about Russia. I am concerned that these misconceptions could lead to unnecessary conflict that no one will win.

We can disagree with them on a host of issues, but develop a spirit of collaboration with which to resolve differences. We must move away from the dangerous stereotypes that have become entrenched in the US since the Cold War that sees Russia as an ‘enemy’. Russia can be our partner, like it was during WWII. Russians expressed a strong desire to build friendship and partnership with the U.S. I hope that Mr. Gorbachev’s call for a US-Russia Summit can happen sooner than later. In the meantime, I will do what I can to develop better relations and build greater understanding between our two countries. The safety of the world depends on it.

Kimberly Weichel is a global development, peacebuilding, non-profit and women’s leadership specialist who has worked on the forefront of building bridges between cultures and peoples for 30 years.

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